Monday, August 10, 2009

Ramadan Preamble

Depending on when exactly the next new moon will be spotted, Ramadan starts in about ten days.

In lieu of that moon sighting, there have been other signs that the holy month of fasting is approaching. Medina streets have been crowded with carts that sell soup tureens and ladles: the ones typically used for harira, the Moroccan tomato-and-chickpea soup that figures so importantly in the cultural experience of Ramadan. Shoppers at Marjane are stocking up on industrial size containers of sugar, flour, oil, and other necessities for the various traditional delicacies that people feast on after sundown. Those who drink alcohol have started their 40-day period of pre-Ramadan abstinence (the ‘theory’ being that alcohol takes 40 days to leave your system*). Meanwhile, the alcohol supply at Rbati grocery stores is (literally) drying up; no alcohol will be for sale anywhere during Ramadan, and shops are selling out the last of their supply. And finally, the August-issues of various women’s magazines discuss the ins and outs of a Ramadan that falls in the summer months: articles advise readers on how to schedule their summer holidays so as to avoid having to fast while on vacation, discuss the best strategies for fasting for long hours, and offer suggestions for daily activity that won’t wear you out.

When I arrived in Morocco at the tail end of Ramadan 2008, I discussed my observations of its practice with my Arabic teacher, Ilyas. I was intrigued by the cultural and societal importance this religious requirement seemed to bear, and was excited to be able to witness its final days. The experience (and my discussions of it with Ilyas) served only to heighten my interest in the significance of Ramadan, and so I am excited that I’ll have the opportunity to participate in the entire holy month this year, and take a deeper look at its meaning, its importance, and its practice.

The commandment to fast during the month of Ramadan can be found in the Qur’an, in a Surah (chapter) revealed in the time after the Prophet Mohammed had established a community of believers in the town of Medina.** On the basis of these verses, the point of this religious obligation seems primarily to be remembrance of the revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Mohammed – which occurred during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. If you see that moment of revelation as a kind of origin-point for the definition, or documentation, of Islamic theology,*** this suggests that the fast of Ramadan thereby serves as a kind of renewal of one’s religious allegiance and identity. This is indeed how the purpose of Ramadan is often described in literature on the subject. Ramadan is meant to be a time of reflection on the basic principles of the Islamic worldview; a renewal of one’s awareness of, commitment to, and effort to enact, its values and moral compass.

About fifteen years ago, Dutch anthropologist Marjo Buitelaar wrote an ethnography of Ramadan in Morocco (Ramadan: Sultan van Alle Maanden, 1993). Describing women’s rituals of preparation and practice, she analyzed the way in which her informants enacted and reflected on this religious obligation. Buitelaar argues that Ramadan’s importance in lived Islam derives from its connection to three other important Islamic concepts: the ummah, or religious community (which is united in the shared fulfillment of the fast); tahara, which refers to purity and cleanliness (the fast is often touted as a great way to cleanse one’s body and soul from the inside out); and ajr, which might be described as a religious version of earned ‘points’, credits, or air-miles (you earn ajr not only by fasting, but also by making an effort to carry out other good deeds during this holy month, such as charity). What I liked most about her ethnography, though, was a smaller point she makes in the course of her argument. Buitelaar suggests that Ramadan also has much to do with another, even more fundamental, Islamic concept: tawhid.

Tawhid, in its most direct translation, means something like ‘one-ness’. It refers in the first place to the absolute monotheism that lies at the foundation of the Islamic worldview, but it resonates with other elements of theology. An important difference between Islam and Christianity, for instance, is the fact that Islam does not ascribe to the same division between body and soul that characterizes Christianity. There is no notion of struggle between a sinful body and a redeemable soul in Islam, and there is thus also no notion of original sin.**** Islam sees the individual as a single whole, body and soul united. Further, tawhid can be taken as a reference to the importance of a religious community – to the unification of people by collective worship and community solidarity.

Ramadan, as a religious obligation, could perhaps be understood as a reinforcement of tawhid in all dimensions of its meaning. The act of fasting unites body and soul in dedication to God. The renewal of religious awareness that Ramadan is meant to occasion is elicited not simply by a mental dedication, but by the use of the body in forcing the mind to turn back to God. It is a very physical kind of devotion. In addition, Ramadan is as much about renewing one’s individual devotion to God, as it is about reinforcing communal solidarity. Ramadan realigns an individual’s goals with God’s commands, but also with the interests of his or her community: it is meant to reunite people under a single shared purpose and renewed spirit of consideration and mutual care-taking. Fasting is meant to enforce awareness not only of God, but also of those among one’s community who deal with hardship on a daily basis.

It was mostly this latter aspect of Ramadan that intrigued me last year. Ramadan is an individual religious obligation, but simultaneously an experience that highlights the importance of the community. What I notice in all this coverage of Ramadan in women’s magazines, though, is a lacking of this communal focus. In fact, the approach taken to Ramadan seems to be highly individualistic. For instance, discussions about the purpose or benefits of Ramadan focus almost solely on its physiological effects on the body – highlighting that same sense of purification and cleansing that Buitelaar wrote about in her ethnography. Its religious meaning and encouragement of community solidarity are left undiscussed. There are articles that decry the excesses in which many people indulge during Ramadan – but rather than argue that overindulging in sugary richness after sundown contradicts both the physiological and mental purpose of fasting, the author denounces the unfair burden that the expectation of a full-on feast at every sundown places on women, who (while men are allowed to spend their days playing around at the beach) have no choice but to slave away their days in the kitchen.

Probably the larger purpose and meaning of it all is considered to be obvious, no longer worthy of discussion, because everyone is aware. Still, the fact remains that there seems to be an interesting push-and-pull between individualism and communalism that is probably always present, but comes out with particular force during Ramadan. I wrote about this tension last year, and I’m hoping to explore it more this time around, perhaps to get to the bottom of how these two forces relate to one another, and what it means for the experience of this holy month. This means that the topic of Ramadan will probably make a few repeat appearances here on this blog. Please stay tuned…

* This is not a proscription you will find in any Islamic Scripture, considering the fact that alcohol is always haram, forbidden, as a matter of principle. The theory is more of a cultural practice than a religious law.
** This is Surah number two, verses 183-187. It is a Surah that dates from after the hijra – after the Prophet’s historic emigration from Mecca to Medina, where he had been invited to build a community of followers in peace. As a later set of revelations that date from a period when persecution had mostly passed, these Surahs focus more strongly than the preceding ones on defining community identity and circumscribing daily religious practice.
*** This is a tricky point, though: within the Islamic worldview, the moment at which the Qur’an was revealed to Mohammed is not the beginning, or founding of Islam, since this is the original religion practiced by Abraham. The Qur’an is, however, the latest and final putting-into-words-and-laws of this religion.
**** Adam and Eve are featured in the Qur’an, but punishment for their disobedience is meted out only to them; not to the rest of humanity.

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